Before the 10th-ranked Georgia Gym Dogs took the mat to face the 4th-ranked Utah Red Rocks for the 50th time, the story of our season (our regular season, at least) had already been mostly written. It has been a story of potential that was only partially realized; of events and achievements that might have been. Over and over this season, we have seen glimpses of the greatness within for this team. Unfortunately, that greatness had remained elusive to this point, with a handful of performers shining every week, but a handful of performers also stinking up the joint in every meet. (And the roles on both sides of the spectrum have been played by virtually every member of the team at various points in the season.) If I had to sum up the entire regular season to this point in one word, that word would be "inconsistency." And in gymnastics, even more so than other sports, inconsistency kills a team's prospects.
In light of those events, I can hardly be faulted for having already written the headline, "Georgia loses to Utah, _____ - _____" at the top of this article before the meet even started. (And I have never been more pleased to have to go back and re-write the entire first few paragraphs of an article.) This was the 50th time Georgia and Utah have met on the gym mat, with UGA holding the 25-23-1 series record before today. And these two programs are the bluest of the gymnastics blue-bloods, having combined for 19 NCAA national championships (more than the entire rest of the NCAA gymnastics field combined). But coming into today, Utah had also beaten the Gym Dogs in 4 of their last 5 meets, and their season this year has been markedly better than ours. I admit, my faith in this team had been shattered.
On this Saturday evening in Stegeman Coliseum, though, and on Senior Day no less, the Gym Dogs finally broke through their self-imposed 2015 glass ceiling. They were finally able to put together four solid rotations with no counted falls, and the result was their highest score and biggest win of the year against their biggest non-conference rival. And perhaps the omens were there from the beginning, as the Gym Dogs had a special guest visiting for the day:
As is customary for home meets, Georgia started out on the vault. And if you were following me on Twitter, you know I wasn't a happy camper early in this thing. In what would turn out to be our lowest-scoring rotation of the night, our ladies just looked a little tentative and "off," for some reason. Out of our 6 vaults, none of them stuck their landings, and 1 (Gigi Marino) actually ended up sitting on the mat afterwards. We were able to drop Gigi's fall, however, and didn't have to count a score lower than 9.80 enroute to an overall rotation score of 49.175. This late in the season, you really want to see a higher total for each rotation, especially on an apparatus that's supposed to be one of our two best. Understandably, I was apprehensive, especially since Utah had a great bars rotation, notching a massive 49.500 in their first rotation, for a commanding 3.25-tenths lead.
I wasn't distraught, per se, but rather resigned to our fate as we headed into the second rotation on bars and Utah headed over to vault. Bars has been our best apparatus this year (as it usually is), but the vault is Utah's best apparatus. Utah came into today ranked #1 in the country on vault, averaging a 49.469. For whatever reason, though, they just couldn't stick their vault landings, either, and their #1 all-everything gymnast, Georgia Dabritz, actually landed directly on her rear end on her vault. As we did with our fall, Utah was able to drop theirs, but they missed Dabritz's normally very high score enroute to a 49.375 rotation. Not mincemeat, by any means, but it's also their worst vault rotation since their second meet of the season.
Clearly, we had an opportunity... and Danna's Dawgs took full advantage of the situation. Brandie Jay started off strongly with a 9.875, and it just got better from there. Natalie Vaculik added a 9.90, Kiera Brown tacked on a 9.95, Chelsea Davis contributed a 9.925, and Brittany Rogers brought the rotation home with another 9.925. When the dust cleared on the second rotation, Georgia sat looking at a massive 49.575 on bars, which is more than 2 full tenths of a point higher than we had managed previously on the season, and is the highest score we've had on any rotation all season.
That vault rotation still weighed heavily on us, though, and at halftime we were still trailing the Red Rocks by a score of 98.875-98.750. Still, that was within striking distance, which is honestly more than I had expected after that vault rotation.
Thanks to the huge bars rotation, we were still in this meet. But now the Gym Dog fans could be forgiven for holding their collective breaths, because we were entering the minefield of a second half, which has been our bane and mortal weakness for pretty much the entire year. Freshman Natalie Vaculik went a long way towards banishing all of those fears, though, with a magnificent first routine on the beam that exuded confidence and strength. (If you'll remember, I've been lamenting for most of the season that we just always seemed far too tentative on the beam, whereas other elite teams grabbed the bull by the horns and tackled the dang thing, metaphorically speaking.) Vaculik was rewarded with a 9.90 for her beautiful leadoff work, and the rest of the team after her put up serviceable, if not spectacular, numbers. Ashlyn Broussard's work in the penultimate routine was judged a 9.875, which was might have been bumped up to a 9.90, but was probably fair. I was hoping Mary Beth Box might push us even higher with her anchor leg on the beam, which has been really great this season, but she somehow managed to fall in the very first maneuver she attempted. Fortunately, however, we already had 5 good routines in the bag by then, so no harm, no foul. Georgia's beam rotation resulted in a very serviceable 49.200. Not the best we've seen, but certainly very, very far from the worst.
We caught a break during this rotation, as well, as Utah just completely fell apart on their floor routines. I don't know what was going on in their heads, but they just couldn't stick their landings on their tumbling passes for anything today. One Utah gymnast even stumbled and almost fell as she was running to start one of her passes, and basically completely skipped the pass altogether. The Red Rocks had to count scores of both 9.70 and 9.725 (and only one 9.9+ score) enroute to a floor rotation total of 49.050. It was this rotation that ultimately ended up costing them the meet.
Thanks to the (only barely metaphorical) faceplant by Utah in the third rotation, Danna's Dawgs had the lead going into the final rotation, though it was only the tiniest of margins, at 147.950-147.925. To win the meet and put up what would easily be their best score (and biggest win) of the year, Georgia would have to score higher on floor than Utah did on beam. And, indeed, beam had been Utah's worst event all year, but their RQS average beam score of 49.220 was still higher than our floor RQS average of 49.170.
I'll save you the suspense, because you know how it turned out. The Gym Dogs rose to the occasion in a massive way, just like we always knew (ok... hoped) they had in them. Sarah Persinger started off the rotation with a very serviceable 9.825, but that would prove to be the score we dropped. Morgan Reynolds banged home a 9.90, followed by a 9.875 by Kiera Brown and an absolutely massive 9.925 by Gigi Marino. Seriously... Gigi Marino is just a freshman, and she has taken a little time to find her groove this season, but for my money, she's looking a helluva lot like the best floor competitor we've got right now. Or at least in the top 2 or 3 on any given night. I might have even given Gigi a 10 for her work tonight on floor. It was a very impressive, confident routine. Vivi Babalis and Mary Beth Box both slammed the door shut on Utah with huge 9.90's, and UGA didn't have to count a score lower than 9.875 as they carded an absolutely phenomenal 49.500 for the final rotation of the night.
You have to give Utah credit, as well... they absolutely did not go quietly into that goodnight. The Red Rocks bested their RQS average score on beam by more than a tenth as they notched a 49.350 in their final rotation. It was a great fight from a worthy opponent that clearly didn't want to lose, and I tip my hat to them.
At the end of the day, we saw the Gym Dogs do something they hadn't yet done this year: they got an opening from an elite team, and they absolutely capitalized on that opportunity. They kept it together on the normally-strong apparatus that just wasn't working for them tonight (the vault), and came up with an epic effort on the floor, considering how badly we had mangled that rotation for almost the entire season up until last week. They finally looked like they had some of the "swagger" back.
Though I've been the champion of the "Morose and Munsonian" faction for most of this season, I could not be happier with this effort or prouder of our ladies for the way they stood up and took the fight to the mat on this day. This is exactly what we've been wanting to see from our Gym Dogs, and though I wish we'd seen more of it sooner, this truly is the time at which it matters the most. If we can keep this level of achievement and even continue to improve upon it, all of our goals for this season are still in front of us... and that's a statement I could not have made in good conscience even 24 hours ago.
The regular season is now over for Danna's Dawgs, and the real season... the postseason... begins now. This score will help boost our RQS to, if my calculations are correct, a 196.875, which should keep us high enough in the rankings to avoid having a nightmare NCAA "group of death" regional with two other elite powers. (The SEC Championship meet does also count as an "away" meet for RQS purposes, so we do still have one more chance to improve our ranking even further.) As long as we can finish in the top 2 at the NCAA Regional meets, then we'll qualify for the nationals, and everything will literally be in front of us at that point.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. The Gym Dogs next meet is the SEC Championship meet next Saturday at The Arena at Gwinnett in Duluth. There will be a 2PM and a 6PM session, and Georgia will likely be competing with the "minnows" in the 2PM group (against Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mizzou), thanks to our poor RQS relative to the rest of the teams in the best gymnastics conference in the country. So if the crowd in that first session isn't sold out, and isn't at least 80% UGA fans, I'm going to be severely disappointed. This team has come up big at the most important point in the season, and we as a fanbase need to support them in what is essentially a hometown meet for our ladies. Not to mention that we'll be the only "big dogs" prowling the floor during that session. If you're in the area, come on over to The Arena at Gwinnett next Saturday and support your Gym Dogs!